Traffic heading southbound through the harbour tunnel during Harbour Bridge closure for surface work

"If Sydney can't deal with a Taylor Swift concert in 2013, what will it be able to cope with in 2020?" Photo: Ben Rushton

Sydney traffic, it seems, can no longer cope when a butterfly flaps its wings.

The city's roads are so absurdly inadequate that one ill-timed concert, one electronic glitch in a subterranean control room, one slightly aggressive hit of weather, one foolish truck driver will almost invariably block roads far from where the initial incident took place, spreading delays through the city in long, splintering snarls of frustration and regret.

Nothing needs to go wrong for traffic on the weekend to become a shambles. 

Taylor Swift had a concert at Moore Park last Wednesday, which was unfortunately timed for peak hour.

Taylor Swift performing during her Red concert.

Taylor Swift should be allowed to hold a concert on a school night without the city grinding to a halt.

Perhaps, on their way there, others had traffic accidents and breakdowns in the Harbour Tunnel, Cahill Expressway and Anzac Parade around the same time. The result was that it soon became quicker to walk anywhere near central Sydney than to drive or catch a bus.

There were similar stories all through the week. On Tuesday, a delivery truck was inexplicably identified as oversized on the approach to the Harbour Tunnel. The truck was soon moved but not before congestion had shattered the morning moods of thousands of northern suburbs commuters.

On Friday, an accident near the Harbour Tunnel had similar results.

Why is traffic getting so bad? Sydney residents are not driving any more than they used to. By and large, the average Sydneysider is increasingly trying to catch the train, bus, or even cycle to work.

But the number of people living in the city is growing, meaning the number of cars there is growing, too. You can see the effect of this most clearly with the development of weekend traffic horrors.

On weekdays, Sydney traffic tends to move fairly predictably, if slowly. It is only when something goes wrong, when a butterfly flaps its wings, that the limitations of the city's road system become clear.

But nothing needs to go wrong for traffic on the weekend to become a shambles. It almost always is. All those people who try to avoid driving during the week, because it can be such a drag, hop in their car to do all the normal things that they like to do on the weekend.

Sydney's transport system has demonstrably failed to keep up with the growth in its population.

Taylor Swift should be allowed to hold a concert on a school night without the city grinding to a halt. Children should be able to be driven to soccer on a Saturday without causing similar problems. But the city's roads - and its public transport system - almost don't allow it.

Another point is that, according to some transport planners, the growth of weekend traffic raises questions about the type of new roads the government is trying to build.

Take the plan to build a long tunnel under Parramatta Road as part of its WestConnex motorway. On a weekend, in particular, it is not clear that people in the inner west will want to use this tunnel. But the impact of the tunnel will be that the existing surface roads could lose capacity. Parramatta Road, for instance, could lose lanes to parking in the interests of making a more pleasant retail strip.

There is a chance, therefore, that the tunnel could mean weekend traffic will be even worse in that area than it already is now. In any event, the government has not released traffic modelling to show what it expects to happen.

A third point is that even these limited solutions are years away. Work on the Parramatta Road tunnel will not start until 2016 - at least five years after the election of the O'Farrell government. Road projects officials once championed as quick wins to reduce congestion around Sydney Airport are not slated to be finished until 2018 - seven years after Barry O'Farrell became Premier.

A Labor MP once described O'Farrell as very like Bob Carr: too cynical to think he can make much of an impact on the big problems of Sydney but otherwise happy to take 10 years as premier by winning the daily politics.

This might be harsh but, if Sydney can't deal with a Taylor Swift concert in 2013, what will it be able to cope with in 2020?

Return to SMH Comment page